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With promotions on the line, beware rivalries that could result in sex bias, harassment

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

Here’s a twist in discrimination law that you might never consider. If a co-worker rivalry for an open position includes threats by one worker to quit if the other is promoted and the rivalry is based on sex bias, you may face a lawsuit if you accede to the threat. That’s what happened in one recent case that made its way to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Recent case: Martha worked her way up the ladder at a university’s police department. She began as an on-the-beat police officer, earned a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree, became a sergeant, lieutenant, captain and, finally, a major. When the chief of police retired, opening up the position, Martha believed she was a strong candidate for the job and applied.

Meanwhile, the department decided to hire an interim police chief until a full and complete search could be completed.

That’s where Martha’s rival comes in. A man was appointed to the interim post. Soon, she was facing what she claimed was hostility from a man, also a major, who wanted the chief of police job, too.

Martha was written up after the interim chief ordered her to enter information into the campus computer system about the arrest of a former dean at the university. Then the other major allegedly told the interim chief that he would quit if Martha (or any woman) was appointed to the chief position.

Also around that time, the interim chief allegedly told Martha’s rival that he would hold the position open until the man earned a bachelor’s degree—which was a requirement for the job and which Martha clearly already had.

Meanwhile, Martha had filed an EEOC sex discrimination complaint. When the man eventually got the promotion, she sued.

As the lawsuit wound through the legal system, Martha began to notice that her rival was taking duties away from her, telling new male officers to ignore her and essentially ostracizing her within the department.

Her case was dismissed because  she had no evidence that her sex played a role in the interim chief’s decision to recommend the man.

The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals saw things differently. It concluded that the rival’s threat to quit if a woman like Martha was appointed—along with evidence that the interim chief and the male candidate may have helped set her up for discipline—was enough evidence of sex discrimination to warrant a jury trial. Plus, the rival’s behavior after Martha complained, which continued as the lawsuit wound its way through the system, was further evidence that her sex had played a role in her promotion and work life. (Haire v. Board of Supervisors of Louisiana State University, No. 12-30290, 5th Cir., 2013)

Final note: This may be the first time that a co-worker’s sexism has been imputed to management promotion decisions. It serves as a warning that you can’t ignore any employee’s blatantly sexist comments. Do so at your peril.

And definitely don’t promote someone with such obvious biases against women (or any other protected class). Employees deserve to be considered for promotion based on qualifications, not a rival’s prejudices and threats.

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